A planned commuter rail line from Camden to Glassboro won't qualify for federal transit funding, leaving state taxpayers with the full $1.3 billion bill. But Delaware River Port Authority officials said yesterday that the project was South Jersey's top transportation priority and that the state was committed to seeing the line built.
The plan calls for diesel light-rail trains to run 17.4 miles alongside an existing Conrail freight line and serve Glassboro, Pitman, Mantua, Wenonah, Woodbury, Woodbury Heights, Deptford, West Deptford, Westville, Bellmawr, Brooklawn, Gloucester City, and Camden.
The goal is to reduce traffic and air pollution along the heavily traveled Glassboro-Philadelphia corridor.
So far, Gov. Corzine has promised to make $500 million available from the state Transportation Trust Fund. Port authority officials said the lack of federal funding would have one advantage: It could allow the line to be built more quickly by streamlining approval.
With funding and environmental approvals, the line could run as far as Woodbury in five years and to Glassboro and Rowan University in six to 10, officials said last month in announcing the route.
Yesterday, they declined to estimate a timetable for completion.
The proposed line doesn't meet Federal Transit Administration requirements for ridership, cost-effectiveness, and commuter time savings, said Robert Box, general manager of the PATCO commuter rail line.
That doesn't mean it's not worthy, said John Matheussen, chief executive of the Delaware River Port Authority.
"It's extremely difficult to meet the marks they put down," Matheussen told the authority's board yesterday. Nationally, he said, only about two of 100 projects get money through the FTA's "New Starts" program. "It looks like we're going to be funding this locally."
Port authority officials said they remained hopeful of other federal money if the state's congressional delegation got special earmark legislation passed. And FTA criteria could be relaxed under the Obama administration, they said.
The rail line is the area's top priority for transportation funding, said Jeffrey Nash, a Camden County freeholder and vice chairman of the port authority. He said political leaders across the region were committed to the project.
Nash said South Jersey deserved state support for the project, much as North Jersey was getting state support for an $8.7 billion rail tunnel under the Hudson River to New York City.
"What's good for the north is good for the south," Nash said.
William Love, a Medford accountant who is a frequent critic of port authority spending, yesterday called the decision to go forward without federal funds unwise.
"If the federal government does not believe there is a benefit, how can the state, with the financial problems it is facing, take the risk of another billion-dollar loser like the River Line?" Love said, referring to the five-year-old light-rail line between Camden and Trenton, which was built with state money. Fares cover only 9 percent of the line's operating expense.
"I say stop it until the feds approve it or independent studies show it has some financial merit," he said.
The proposed rail line was the centerpiece of a $2 billion South Jersey mass-transit plan announced last month by Corzine. The plan also called for express bus lanes on highly congested I-676 and Routes 42 and 55, and improved rail service on NJ Transit's underused Atlantic City Line, with a stop at PATCO's Woodcrest station in Cherry Hill and at Atlantic City International Airport.
Planners hope to get federal funding to help build the $200 million "bus rapid transit" lanes, Matheussen said yesterday. That plan envisions rush-hour buses every seven minutes in dedicated lanes on a 26-mile route to help reduce congestion and speed commutes between Gloucester County and Philadelphia.
By 2030, planners predicted, the rail line would carry passengers on 18,600 daily trips if the bus lanes weren't built. If the bus lanes were built, they predicted, the train would get 14,900 daily trips and the buses 9,100.
The operating cost of the rail line was estimated at $29 million a year, with about half covered by fares.
In other business yesterday, the authority's board approved spending $9.6 million to upgrade underground PATCO stations in Philadelphia and Camden. Construction could start in August.
The four subterranean PATCO stations in Philadelphia and two in Camden would get new flooring, lights, security cameras, and steel-clad columns. The financing would exhaust Pennsylvania economic-development money at the bistate agency, chairman John Estey said.
Plans to reopen the long-dormant Franklin Square station in Philadelphia also advanced.
A board committee authorized spending $500,000 for the design work necessary to open the station, beneath Sixth and Race Streets. The 73-year-old station was last used in 1979.
If the full board approves the design funding next month, a design plan could be ready by the end of the year, Estey said.
Also yesterday, PATCO received official word that it will get $10.5 million in federal stimulus aid to replace power poles and renovate the 40-year-old lighting system at the City Hall Station in Camden.